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This is part of an authorized online posting of Harvey Reid's important book, "The Troubadour Chronicles," published in May 2020. It is available in paperback from this web site or from Amazon.com.

troubadour book cover

“Can I read notes? Hell, there are no notes to a banjo. You just play it.” Reply made by an old-time banjo picker, interviewed around 1850, when asked if he could read music. [From Pete Seeger’s “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” book (1962)]

Chapter 6: Troubadours, Music and Paper

We don’t know exactly when or how the matters of writing, language and musical notation started impacting the world of troubadour music, but it was a long time ago, and the situation has evolved steadily into several forms of friction, conflict and misunderstanding. I want to hold several things up to the light here, because controversies about “musical literacy” have been swirling around guitar players and troubadours for nearly five hundred years and show no signs of pleasantly resolving themselves. Reading music is one of the benchmarks of measurement that has long been used to proclaim its practitioners to be superior musically to non-readers, and I especially want to address that idea. When I say “reading music,” I am referring to the idea of using clefs, staff lines, and the various quarter notes, rests and bar lines that the “literate” music world has used for centuries, and not all forms of notation like tablature, lyric sheets or song charts. Even if you’ve never played a musical instrument or done any singing yourself, hopefully you’ll still find this discussion interesting, since it is very much a hot-button concern among music students, teachers and performers and their families.

Most of us learn to read printed words in our childhood, and from then on we can simply read things and think no more about it. We generally learn to read language at such a young age that many of us remember little about the learning experience itself, and its value to us is never in question. It is considered to be a basic and necessary activity, and by no means is reading thought of as a specialized skill. A significant percentage of us could read aloud from a book we have never seen before and do a reasonable job of delivering the content to other people, with some expression, probably much better than a robot, at least for a few more years until the robots improve significantly. It is natural to assume, especially if you are not a musician, that reading music works in a similar way. It would make sense at a glance that children should learn it, and that musical illiteracy might be as crippling to a musician as being unable to read words would be to anyone. To a church organist, this might be true, but in the musical world of guitars and troubadours it’s actually very different, and almost a non-issue. The piano player in our church is reading music every Sunday, and like her fellow church pianists, she can reliably provide useful music for services without having either memorized the music or created anything, though I don’t know for sure how many times she has performed any given piece I hear her play, or how much she fills in with small improvisations or omissions. That type of musician usually rehearses and does some homework before a performance, and is reluctant to perform music they have never seen before. The world of reading music revolves around music that is designed to be readable, and it often draws its power from the combining of the voices of the many, and not from the idea that the individual players are being virtuosic. Professional horn players are expected to be able to read scores from the printed page, as are classical string players, though soloists memorize their music and are generally not sight-reading when they perform an opera aria or a featured solo with a symphony. The task of reading music clearly favors situations where written parts involve only one note sounding at a time, especially on wind instruments, though bowed instruments can play two simultaneous notes on adjacent strings. Keyboard, string and many bass players typically can read their parts admirably, as can every instrument in the orchestra or marching band, as long as the difficulty lies within what is considered a normal range.

This situation casts a disparaging shadow on guitarists who can’t or don’t read, and who have never worked with a conductor in their lives. It is this shadow I am concerned with here– the recurring specter of the idea that you are not a “real musician” unless you can sight-read well and even play things “cold” from a musical score. Pavarotti didn’t read music. Neither did the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Irving Berlin or almost all popular guitar players or singers since World War II. If you want to play some songs recreationally on your guitar, many of us in the troubadour community feel strongly that you should not devote your precious musical time trying to learn to read notation as part of your training, though I might be one of the few who is so bold as to say it loudly. The first problem is that the relationship between written musical notation and stringed instruments with fingerboards involves complications that singers, single-note instruments and keyboards don’t encounter. Secondly, when a musician is singing while also providing their own accompaniment, it further complicates those problems and introduces new ones. Third and fourth, there isn’t much troubadour music written down, and there is no consensus on how to sound the strings. Some players use a “plectrum” or flatpick to either pick or strum single notes or multiple strings, while others use the thumb alone, or in combination with one or more right-hand fingers. No single notation system will work for all of these styles, and some players do more than one at different times. On the piano, the ten fingers either play or don’t play the keys, but guitar strings are brushed, struck and plucked up or down, and even snapped or pulled in all sorts of ways. The diversity of right-hand guitar approaches, especially among “untrained” players, is part of the beauty of the instrument, and in no way should or could be standardized. The diversity of ways people like to sound their strings frustrates attempts to normalize a notation. Finally, the vital dynamic, rhythmic and tonal properties of the unwritten music comprise a huge part of its content. The glissando and other special symbols, the Italian instructions and comments above the musical staff like non troppo mosso, adagio, or briskly but lightly don’t convey enough information to tell a sight-reader how to sound like James Taylor, Ani DiFranco, Arlo Guthrie or some other iconic artist. The ultra-important expressive elements that lie at the heart of the troubadour art form simply cannot be precisely depicted in existing written notation.

Music Meets Paper
In Seville in the 7th century a man named Isidore wrote that “Unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down.” The oldest known musical notation was a form of numerical lute “tablature” used by the Sumerians, though Gustave Reese attributes an older type to the Phoenicians. Arabic oud players long ago used a written system to map where the notes landed on their fingerboards, and Islamic religious singers also used a form of vocal notation, though both were used primarily for teaching rather than performing. In Europe, by about the 8th century, metrical unaccompanied singing we now call plainchant was dominant, in the manner of crowds singing cheers at a football game. Originally used as a way to teach groups of singers and to standardize the singing of monks, notation grew in parallel with the evolution of the ideas of harmony and counterpoint, where members of a music group sang or played different parts. It doesn’t appear that either harmony or counterpoint were much a part of older Norse, Germanic, Arabic or Greek music that was variously inherited by medieval Europeans, and the new complexity and possibilities were a key part of an exciting new musical horizon that was greatly assisted by notation. A milestone happened in 1026 when Guido D’Arezzo introduced the ideas of time signatures, the musical staff, and the beginnings of the solfege system of “do-re-mi” in his musical treatise Micrologus. It became the second most widely distributed text on music in the Middle Ages. Those now-familiar syllables didn’t originate from the movie “The Sound of Music,” but from the first lines of a hymn about John the Baptist called Ut Queant Laxis, attributed to eighth century Lombard historian Paulus Diaconus. Its melody followed the scale like the Christmas song “Joy to the World.” “UT queant laxis, RE sonare fibris, MIra gestorum, FAmuli tuorum, SOlve pollute, LAbii reatum” (“So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips...”) About 700 years later the syllable “UT” became “DO,” a shortening of dominus, and the syllable SI, for the seventh tone, was added in the 18th century for reasons that are difficult to explain.

It’s somewhat combative to say this, though I will repeat it often, but the music education world that has always been the primary endorser of the practice of reading musical notation unfortunately does not seem to formally recognize the musical value of the troubadour art form, where someone is playing an instrument and singing at the same time. This begs the difficult question of how much stock to put into the implied superiority of written-music world’s chosen methods of learning or performing, or in their conclusions, whether voiced or privately held, on the value of unwritten music and its alternative methods of transmission. Since music academies don’t really acknowledge the existence of troubadour music or address our concerns in their curriculum, it becomes a struggle to find comfortable common ground on a number of issues, especially on musical notation. This has been an ongoing problem ever since written music began to be widespread, just as there have been problems extracting the story of unwritten music from our mostly written histories.

Unwritten Music
Unwritten music is not a lack of music or something incomplete or crude; it is a different approach to music that is neither superior or inferior to the written versions. As we saw in our discussions of terminology and dictionaries, the printed-page mentality tends to dominate, whether it involves definitions, history or the music itself. Attempts to learn to play or to learn about the history of orally-transmitted music intersect constantly with and become co-mingled with the written music and written histories. In an ideal world the two should interact and coexist, though they often don’t, and are almost never seen by anyone as equal or comparable. I get a steady stream of requests for tablature of a guitar piece of mine that is built around a very difficult syncopated right-hand technique derived from Scruggs-style banjo, combined with the use of a partial capo that only clamps three strings, and I struggle to explain that I don’t think it can be learned from paper. A vast amount of music never was or cannot be put on paper, and explanations or chronicling done by people who are only interested in the music that does exist on paper often don’t even reflect an understanding or even a curiosity of how the unwritten music works. Truth-seekers, musicians and historians have always relied heavily on paper documents as concrete evidence, and those types of sources nearly always generate better press and higher credibility than hearsay, legends, oral traditions or folktales. If you are reading this, you likely believe in reading and writing, and here on the page it is a constant struggle to describe the music that isn’t put into symbols on paper.

Scholarly discussions about the “authentic” troubadour music and poetry from the 12th and 13th centuries in France and Italy are almost entirely based on written documents, many of which were themselves written at later times than when the music was actively circulating. There are at least nine vexingly different extant versions of the epic “Song of Roland” from the Middle Ages, for example, all of which appear to have been written down long after the time the poem originated and flourished in the oral tradition in medieval France. So how do you study or learn a poem that doesn’t have a fixed form, that undoubtedly existed in many others, and that was not just a poem but a song originally? Any musicians who improvise do that sort of thing constantly, though some songs or tunes have more fluid forms than others, and some musicians are more inclined to constantly modify their music than others.
The once-familiar folk song “Down in the Valley,” also known as “Birmingham Jail,” that appears widely in beginning music instruction and folksong books is a simple and accessible example of this phenomenon. The most widely-circulating recordings of it, all following the popular 1927 version by Darby & Tarleton, were made variously by Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Otis Redding, Lead Belly, Slim Whitman, Connie Francis, Patti Page, Michael Martin Murphy, Jerry Garcia & David Grisman, Solomon Burke, Long John Baldry, Johnny Bond, Carson Robison & Bud Billings, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Elizabeth Mitchell and others– and they are all noticeably different. All versions I found are in ¾ time and almost every one uses only two chords. Though the song is not much more than a nursery rhyme, there are endless variations in the words as well as some in the simple melody, and numerous different ways of phrasing, timing and tempo, especially the length of the pauses between lines. The version by Five Cent Coffee is even an entirely different melody. None of the versions are “correct” or “wrong,” and the ones recorded by solo troubadours are almost all slightly irregular and inconsistent from one verse to the next. So how do you learn it? Which version goes in your folk song book or on your recording? When you sing it at the campfire or your student recital, what verses do you sing, and how many beats do you wait after you sing the “Hang your head over, hear the wind blow” line? Do you even pause where the comma separates those phrases? Should you perhaps sing former convict Lead Belly’s line “Hang your head out the window, feel the wind blow” that expresses something quite poignant of what it feels like to not be in prison? Instead of being faced with just words to sing and notes to play, every singer is essentially asked to make their own decisions as to what tempo, words, melody and pauses they prefer. If you like the “Build me a tower, forty feet high” verse or the “If you don’t love me, love whom you please,” sing them, but skip them if you don’t. The song is ingeniously designed so that if you are leading the song and performing it with others, they will be able to follow along, even if you are inconsistent with your timing and pauses. It’s actually a very forgiving and unifying song, yet as soon as you commit to a version on paper, it instantly invites arguments about what is right or wrong. A producer could stop a recording session of it if the singer added an extra beat between verses, though it really wouldn’t matter if they did because other musicians could follow them if they were paying attention and in the moment. The old recordings of it may have been affected by the strict 3-minute limit on the length of a recorded song on a 78rpm record, and musicians might well have chopped off pauses between lines to shorten their versions.

Many of the songs we troubadours sing work like this– they are not in a fixed form, and the performer recalls, shapes and modifies the delivery in the moment, even if they are not necessarily folk songs or improvisations. One of the ongoing myths about music says that “jazz musicians” are the ones who improvise, yet many musicians of all styles also occupy the moment and make endless modifications to the music as they play it. Woody Guthrie himself was a marvelous example of a singer who constantly added or changed words, extended or compressed phrases or added dynamic emphasis seemingly arbitrarily, adding a whole new dimension of variability and spontaneity to a song during its performance. The stories of his dancer wife Marjorie trying to get him to play guitar consistently along with one of her performance pieces with the Martha Graham troupe are amusing, because Woody was hopeless. Blues performance has always been filled with performers modifying songs and adding or skipping beats or verses seemingly arbitrarily. As soon as you try to write music down, you come up against this strange wall, since you then have to make decisions and choices about these issues. Fiddlers also constantly modify and rephrase their “simple” 16-bar tunes, so that any written version of any tune played by nearly any master fiddler immediately becomes incomplete and inaccurate, and this inherent “fuzziness” becomes concealed from any reader, even though it is actually one of the most delightful and personal pleasures of knowing and playing those tunes. A recording or a video of a song or a fiddle tune has none of those notational issues. For an example, go listen to guitarist Dan Crary’s nearly 8-minute version of the one-chord fiddle tune “Sally Good’n” as he, fiddler Byron Berline and banjoist John Hickman spin out endless variations that no doubt would be different if they played it again. Even if someone transcribed and published every note of that version it would have questionable value to those musicians or to anyone wanting to learn to become masters of that craft.

In the past century, since the sword of unwritten music was pulled out of the stone by recording and broadcasting technologies, orally and aurally-transmitted music has recovered a huge amount of ground that it lost in the preceding five centuries. Writer and music historian Ted Gioia summed things up beautifully in his brilliant book “Delta Blues”: “Blame it on Pythagoras, if you want. Western thinking on music was developed by scientists and philosophers, starting with Pythagoras, and continuing with Ptolemy, Boethius, and others, who sought quantitative explanations for the art of plucking strings…. To this day, the path to musicianship in the West builds from interaction with pieces of paper– written scores, lessons, songs to learn– driven by pedagogical systems, methodologies and arcane disciplines, scales, exercises, and the like. When African traditions entered the stream of American music, they challenged this hierarchy, almost to a scandalous degree…. not just that there were no systems or scores; not just that it was played by the untutored and unlearned; not just that the music wasn’t written down; the real rub here was that the music couldn’t be written down, given the standard tools of Western notation.” This is true not just of blues or spirituals, but of bagpiping, Russian domra playing, bluegrass or Irish fiddle music, and of what most singers and songwriters still do when they sing their songs with their guitars. African-American musicians may have provided the keys that let all the troubadours out of prison, so to speak, and we’ll return to that later. Let’s keep going in this discussion about music, notation and paper.

Troubadour Music vs. Paper
Understand that there is no such thing as a “trained troubadour” who just turns to a page in a hymnal or band book to play a written guitar part and perform each song the way it is printed in the book. Sight-reading has become a part of the ingrained public conception of what musicians do and how people learn music in their lessons, yet it essentially does not exist in the world of troubadours. If you see a nightclub guitarist flipping through a notebook of songs, that notebook almost certainly has lyrics and perhaps chord symbols or charts, but not notes, clefs and rests. Guitar troubadours don’t read musical notation as they sing in lounges or coffeehouses, and there isn’t a book anywhere that shows the notes of the guitar parts to the songs and the melody and lyrics on another staff. Piano songbooks have existed since the days when every family had a piano in their parlor, and the music industry consisted almost entirely of publishers selling sheet music to them, but there haven’t been corresponding guitar-reading editions published. The Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Cat Stevens songbooks on my bookshelf all have piano arrangements of songs, with parts written by nameless employees of the publishing companies, usually in keys that make pianists happy, and often with guitar chord symbols over the staff that bear little or no relation to what the guitar-playing troubadour artists played on the recordings or do at their concerts. Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” appears in his songbooks in the key of Eb, because piano players like that key much better than D, the key Dylan sang it in, though he actually used a capo at fret 7 and played chords for the key of G. The guitar chords shown in the songbook are not what Dylan did when he recorded the song, or even what any guitar player in the world would do. Amazingly, the Bb and the Bb7 chord diagrams shown above the staff are actually unplayable, and the Eb chord is a voicing I have never seen used or played myself in 50 years. Presumably someone at M. Witmark & Sons publishing company created those piano arrangements, not to show guitarists how to play the song, but as part of an old and once-lucrative tradition of selling printed music to amateur piano players. Comparable sight-reading versions of this kind of songbook for guitar don’t exist, and if you tried to make one yourself you’d have all sorts of problems trying to decide what to write down and how to do it, and Dylan undoubtedly did different things on guitar in the different verses, yet they are shown on the page as words sung to the same instrumental part on the staff below them. None of the arrangements of popular guitar songs are made available that show what the popular artists are actually playing, though now of course people are learning from each others’ videos and even using Skype or Facetime.

Nevertheless, written music retains a very strong foothold in the world and in popular consciousness as the “correct” or “educated” way to play or to teach music, and the battle over whether it is the right thing to do to take guitar lessons that involve reading music is unfortunately far from over. Can someone please explain to me again why we troubadours should embrace sight-reading and musical notation? What exactly are people supposed to be reading and playing with those skills they are being urged to work so hard to develop? Exercises in sight-reading instructional books? People by the millions are already learning to play guitar and always have, without any involvement with institutionalized learning or sight-reading of notation, and they would all certainly flunk every entrance exam to music schools. Does this mean they are ignorant and their music has no value or is deeply flawed? Of course not.

All musical notation has limitations, especially regarding rhythm and tone, but the biggest issues involving troubadours and written music are that 1) the standard musical notation system evolved with the keyboard, and it is inherently clumsy for the guitar 2) a huge percentage of guitarists play in non-standard tunings, for which sight-reading doesn’t really work 3) Extremely small numbers of guitarists anywhere sight-read music fluently and never have, yet there remains an impression embedded in nearly everyone that reading music with notes on the staff lines is the “correct” way to learn to play music and to become a “well-rounded musician.” I cannot find a spokesperson or an eloquent and thoughtful explanation anywhere of why it makes little sense for troubadours, whose musical statement involves accompanying their songs, to invest their time trying to learn to read music. This is especially true when their goals are primarily recreational, which seems to mean that I must buy a megaphone and create and argue the case here for troubadours ignoring notes, rests and staves and feeling good about it. It has remained a very sensitive issue, and boils down to a choice made in everyone’s first guitar lesson of whether to try to read music or not. A significant percentage of guitar education materials available certainly seem to think that the answer is yes, though a century or two ago that figure may have been vastly higher.
If you arrived from the Sight-Reading Planet and could read guitar music perfectly, it would do you little good here on Earth. You could possibly play thousands of classical guitar and lute pieces, and possibly a handful of other things like Chet Atkins solos that diligent readers have translated into their language, and a good bit of jazz that has been transcribed or created by guitar education people. I’d love to give someone from that planet a written transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s playing or an Albert King or David Bromberg guitar solo and see what came out. If you wanted to play guitar in a band that played original or popular music, there really aren’t situations where your job is to sit at a music stand and read the notes that show you your part. This is what horn and woodwind players do in school orchestras and cruise ship bands, but it isn’t what troubadours, rock stars or country bands performing at the state fair do. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the non-reading musicians are second-class citizens or “illegitimate.” Whatever all those millions of guitar players are doing out there is just not anywhere to be found on paper with notes, staves and clefs. An unimaginably huge world of music is being played that isn’t mirrored in paper form anywhere in a way that sight-readers could reproduce, even if there were players with the skills to play it properly while reading.

A flood of questions present themselves, beginning with whether or not it would even be possible for everyone to agree on what a proper guitar or troubadour written-music education experience should consist of. Should the teachers, the students or perhaps popular performers decide what is a proper learning experience? Maybe it is fine and healthy that so many people are playing music and not sight-reading, and maybe what they are doing is not wrong. Private guitar teachers today are not licensed or supervised in any way, and are free to do whatever they want. You can’t fix plumbing or install drywall most places without a contractor’s license, which often involves passing an exam, but there are no regulations or rules anywhere regarding who can teach what in guitar lessons or music instruction. Teachers who use paper are commonly using various combinations of tablature, chord charts, chord diagrams and even just lyrics with chord symbols above the words. Does someone need to crack the whip and fix this random, disorganized peasant music learning system? Is it time for legislation? I attended a meeting where music educators from Florida were discussing the formalizing of statewide requirements for music education in their schools, and one of the things for 4th graders to be possibly tested on was the meaning and use of the word ostinato. My troubadour blood is still boiling, thinking about how utterly useless and tangential that word is to my musical world. Should sight-reading and its terminology be an integral part of guitar or troubadour learning? Why? Are guitarists fundamentally lazy, incompetent or just rebellious? How much should we be teaching guitarists to play instrumental music that is written on paper, as opposed to creating or improvising song accompaniments, which is what the vast majority of music done with a guitar consists of? How many people do we need who can sight-read guitar music? What are they going to read and who is going to listen to it? Are memorization and improvisation more valuable skills to cultivate? Should we openly tell people not to bother with reading guitar music, or instead encourage them to start when they are very young and their brains are agile? Is it possible that like languages, only really young children can learn to read music fluently? Do the issues apply to sight-reading, memorization, improvisation or all of them? Guitar students usually have to wait until they are about 13 years old so that their hands are large and strong enough; perhaps by then it’s already too late for them to learn to read music and wire their brains directly to their instruments like young piano and violin-playing children supposedly do. I want to move on to other topics, but I’m going into the fray here to try to put this musical notation thing to rest– no pun intended.

Music Meets the Printing Press
It is a tenable theory that the arrival of the printing press and the massive proliferation of written arrangements of music were one of the key factors that drove troubadour music out of churches, schools and concert halls and into the shadows. Douglas Alton Smith tells us that Lyon, France had more than one hundred print shops by 1515, and that within thirty years there were four hundred. The technology of the printing press created a tsunami of all manner of written information, and some types of learning that didn’t lend themselves well to the printed page suffered, especially when there was a written form competing with it. It is believable that the trades of blacksmithing or belly dancing did not feel the pinch of people learning from books after Gutenberg first printed his Bible in 1455, but by two centuries later, troubadour music was clearly no longer being invited to the music parties that Western civilization was throwing. Not everything that was being printed on paper was detrimental to troubadour music or to the idea that a musician should play an instrument and sing at the same time– broadsides, pamphlets and ballad lyrics were created in great quantities along with poetry and song books, though it appears that the words to songs fared far better on paper than the music. Blues researcher Paul Oliver is convinced that printed song sheets, often called “ballits,” essentially a holdover from the 17th century “broadsides,” were a key part of how American blues and gospel musicians learned and disseminated songs in the early 20th century before recordings. Often just a single sheet of paper that sold for a penny in 17th century England and a nickel in 1900 in America, they were easy to make, and might have had a bigger impact than we realize in spreading both popular and traditional songs. Unfortunately, very few of those song sheets have survived, concealing the fact that their impact may have been comparable to that of books, schools or oral traditions.
Just as digital technology is gutting and revolutionizing various industries today, music was only one of many disciplines that were changed fundamentally by a growing Western European rationalist mindset emphasizing correctness, logic and reproducibility, and fueled by the printing press. There may have been no conspiracy or evil intent; what damage did occur to non-written learning may have only been a by-product of larger things, especially all-pervasive ways of thinking like humanism and rationalism. As we will discuss more in Chapter 13, it may not be just a coincidence that the era when troubadour music began to be scorned and even outlawed was precisely the same as when understanding and appreciation of folk and oral music traditions were at a peak low. This was also the time when sight reading, orchestras, operas and what we now call “classical music” exploded with popularity and acceptance. The development of the rules of composition and theory and the training of composers and performers all over Europe, greatly amplified by printing technology, did succeed in spreading highly-organized music on a large scale, and that large body of music certainly enchanted and occupied huge numbers of people and still does. It isn’t fair to characterize it as a bully or a villain; the detrimental effects it seems to have had on troubadour music might have been unintentional or collateral damage, though someone killed by a stray or unintended bullet is nonetheless dead. There were real consequences of the inability of notation systems to portray tonal and rhythmic components, of not allowing musicians to read music while singing self-accompanied, and also in the subtle difficulties of fitting modal and pentatonic folk music into the frameworks established by the rules of harmony and composition that quickly dominated European musical practice. We will investigate later the disrespect and derision that came to be heaped on peasant musicians and troubadours, but for now let’s stay focused on the relationship between music, symbols and paper that has been complicating troubadours’ lives for centuries.

Reconciling Written and Unwritten
This discussion leads to the obvious yet complicated question that if troubadours and peasant guitarists are not reading notes or following an arrangement or map, then what are they doing, and what does it even mean for them to learn or to play a song? It’s difficult to answer that without presenting an entire troubadour music curriculum, which at some point may need to be done. The issue is not new, or just a guitar problem, since “American songbook” pop and jazz songwriting legend Irving Berlin (1888-1989) created all of his nearly 1000 songs on the piano without ever writing them down on paper. (Someone else did that for him.) If you were to observe a skilled “musically illiterate” guitar player for an hour-long performance, whether they were in a band or playing solo, it would be unimaginable to produce a sheaf of sheet music that represented everything they did, with all the chords, rhythms, improvisations, fills and solos in some written form that could then be given to someone else to reproduce their work. There already is computer software that can be connected to certain specialized guitars that could possibly do that, but who would want to or be able to read it? The world seems to understand but never discusses the details that if Eric Clapton played a guest appearance with your band, he would likely do some preparation to familiarize himself with the music, and then play various things in his style that no one would expect others to copy. Mark Knopfler, John Mayer or Joyce Andersen would do differently distinctive things. Skilled but non-reading musicians are usually granted considerable leeway to choose what to play, and in a huge percentage of public and professional music situations that take place every day, featured guitarists are absolutely not expected to read any parts. It is assumed that they will be able to create and perform whatever it is that they choose to do, and clearly this is a crucial part of something performing musicians often do.

My wife and I hired a local piano teacher to teach our boys, since neither of us learned piano as a child and we thought they should have the opportunity. He asked what song they wanted to learn, and they said “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. So he sent away for the sheet music, came back in a week and put it on the piano, and proceeded to show them how to read the notes and play the song. They said “That’s not how that song goes!” and lost interest instantly. I still have the sheet music. (Next time I find it I’ll have my sight-reading phone app play it for me.) It makes me wonder who wrote the arrangement, and how much money they or the publisher have made selling it to piano teachers. How would you notate the tone of the opening riff to “Satisfaction” on paper so someone would know what it should sound like? It’s not an organ stop, and there is no Italian word or symbol for Maestro FZ-1 Fuzztone you can put above the staff. The sound of that guitar riff changed rock & roll guitar forever, but you can only appreciate or learn it by hearing it. It actually sounds a little silly when you play those three notes on the piano.

Untold numbers of people have had unsuccessful sight-reading experiences that arguably should have never happened, and it is unmeasurable how many of them have been led to believe that they are not musical because of those failures. Real damage has possibly been done on a wide scale, especially to people who wanted to play guitar, and were faced with imaginary barriers to music learning and an unnecessary lack of success involving musical notation. It is daunting to contemplate how many fine singers with a good sense of rhythm or other musical instincts and talents have been tossed under the music bus because of written music. I am startled at how many people in my small world seem to have been trampled by beginning music instruction, like dogs that have been kicked or punished when they were young. Plenty of piano students have failed to read music effectively, but because guitarists read music at probably the lowest level of any common instrument, they have especially had to learn to live with an inferiority complex that is connected to the feeling that they are not “real” musicians or must quit because they don’t read music. Because there are no loud voices or respected institutions telling anyone that it is fine and normal to not read guitar music, it takes a strong-willed, thick-skinned person to shrug off all the stigmatization of either rejecting or being unable to sight-read and pursue a career or even a hobby in “illegitimate” music. Even the magazines of folk music periodically publish articles about how important and valuable reading music is, and I am not aware of any high-profile public spokespersons in my lifetime publicly pleading the case of not reading guitar music. We talk openly now about “shaming” as it connects to body image, diet or sexual preference, but I have only heard privately from people about their “music shaming” or “guitar shaming” experiences. Every modern troubadour has to work through this either consciously or unconsciously, and explain to themselves or their families why they don’t or can’t go to school, take lessons or teach themselves to study music “properly.”

In many aspects, institutionalized music learning is still operating like it is still the 1700s, though it can seem to be a 21st century activity when they are using computers or taking lessons and reading music from an iPad instead of a piece of parchment. I am convinced that I am not crazy to be suspicious and to be questioning the “authority” and “validity” of sight-reading for guitarists, and that the entire guitar education system in our institutions of learning desperately needs some major überizing. Guitar has been the dominant instrument in society for nearly 75 years, yet that hegemony has had only a very minimal effect on music education. Its players continue to feel like outcasts, and the ways of troubadours remain in the misunderstood realm of folk knowledge. The popular new phenomenon of guitar orchestras is delaying the revolution and tricking students and their parents into thinking they are learning useful guitar skills as the conductor directs dozens of children at their music stands to all play simple melodic parts on their guitars. I’m not advocating for troubadours to be musically ignorant, and admittedly many of them are barely even aware of what key or time signature they are playing in. It is valuable sometimes to read guitar tablature and especially chord charts at gigs or recording sessions. Those charts are important, and you will be far better off if you learn some music theory about keys, chord structure, progressions and transposing. Learning to sight-sing even makes some sense for a troubadour, though there are not a lot of melodies you are going to find that only exist in old books that you have to be able to sight-sing to explore, since there are now audio or video versions of nearly everything available somewhere. Getting a music-reading phone app for $3.99 might make more sense than trying to learn to read the notes.

Sight-Reading as a Specialized Memory Skill
It is not well-known that studies of music sight-reading indicate that it involves something called “working memory.” This means that readers are able to look ahead a certain amount, and put the information into a sort of “memory buffer” where it sits briefly in a crucial intermediate step. Between the visual input of the symbols from the page and the hands or voice outputting the music on the other end, something happens in the brain to allow the whole thing to work. Read this paragraph aloud to someone, and you can feel that happening as your eyes scan a little ahead to see what is coming even though you are speaking continuously. As Bruce Bowers at Science News put it, “the best sight-readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of piano practice over several decades.... Working memory appears to be a capacity that gels early in life and can’t be improved much by learning.” His article goes on to say that “research indicates that working memory capacity varies from one person to another and changes little from childhood to adulthood.” All the more reason to not focus on sight-reading as your path to music, since it takes thousands of hours to get good at it, and practicing does not seem to help with the essential elements of it. People appear to be either innately good at it or they aren’t. Simultaneous language translators, who listen to someone speak one language and then speak to someone else in a different language, also rely on highly-advanced working memories, that also use a memory buffer to process the information in a similarly vital intermediate step. Experiments where they put people into brain-scanning machines have shown that musicians and simultaneous translators show similar patterns of which parts of their brains light up in the pictures.

Skilled sight-readers often become music teachers, and they naturally expect that their students should be able to learn what they learned, by similar methods. There are enough people out there with this ability that the skills can be passed down, though the majority of students fail to perform at the level of their teachers. There always seem to be some but not huge numbers of wire-walkers, fast race horses, redheads or albinos, midgets, bass singers and people who seem to be pre-wired with abilities for specialized skills. Sight-reading of music might be part of that group of special aptitudes that only some of us can excel at. Roughly one out of ten people is left-handed. Can you choose to be left-handed or not to be? Perhaps simultaneous language translators and sight-reading musicians occur at a regular but reduced frequency in humanity. Some very smart people think that we cannot will ourselves or try harder to become one of them if we are not born with some key element of it. Musicians who are innately good at sight-reading would naturally think that whatever learning path worked for them will work for others. Sadly, huge numbers of people who don’t sight-read well have been cast off along the music highway, having been led to believe that they failed or are not musical, when the truth may be simply that they are not and will never be skilled sight-readers. As long as we get enough people to fill the few sight-reading positions in churches, orchestras and schools the system is declared healthy, when in truth it is quite possibly failing the vast majority of people who enter into it, and certainly not reaching out to or encouraging other kinds of musicians to participate in the ways that work best for them.

Reading Music, Memorizing and Parts of the Brain...
While we have the hood open, let’s look at another set of relationships between music and the human brain. Reading, improvising and memorizing are very disparate musical activities that may involve different mental and performance skills, yet they become quite intertwined in music education, and we cannot ever be sure what exactly is happening when we play music or when we hear others do it. Those of us who are good at reading may not be the same group who are good at memorizing or improvising, though they are certainly not mutually exclusive ideas. If you read a written paragraph or a passage of music repeatedly it doesn’t automatically embed itself in your memory. You will likely have to actively try to learn it for it to sink in, and learning to read something and learning to memorize and perform without reading it do not appear to be the same processes, at least for most of us. My musical colleagues and I rely a great deal on memorization in our music, which among readers seems to be perceived to a great extent as a “black art.” Search online for “reading vs. memorizing music.” It’s very interesting what people have to say on this subject, and the most things you’ll encounter are written by people who are poor at memorizing or haven’t been pushed to do it. What you find is almost as if the people are from different planets or speak different languages. Some non-readers lament that they are poor at reading music, and want to improve, and readers lament that they are poor at memorizing, though there are a significant number of reading musicians who claim that their way is the best. The research is interesting on the value of memorizing in all kinds of education settings. It appears to me that we are only hearing from one side of the issue, and the only people publishing “research” into music education are career music educators. Gigging jazz musicians, street fiddlers, singer-songwriters and blind blues singers aren’t publishing their research, and I can’t seem to find anything resembling a mountain-top where we can stand and look across all the disciplines of music learning and look for common ground, ultimate truth, similarities or contrasting ideas.

I also don’t get a sense that schools currently encourage memorization as a tool of learning academic skills in general, yet almost all learning ultimately depends on at least some of it. My children were taught in school to understand and conceptualize addition and multiplication, but ultimately what the teachers and test-makers really wanted but never actually said was for children to just memorize the arithmetic tables and to come up with the correct answers quickly. Neurological research seems to indicate that music might work differently in our brains than other cognitive disciplines, and musical learning may be a unique form that isn’t directly analogous to things like math or languages. It is possible that our brains link the words and music of songs together in our memories, which might mean that learning songs with words happens differently from learning just words or just melodies. Rhythm might even be a factor also. It’s anybody’s guess whether we are making a huge error in education by not encouraging children to memorize as much music and poetry as possible when they are young. When Jesus was training as a rabbi, it was considered standard Bet Sefer and Bet Talmud practice for students to memorize the Old Testament by the age of fourteen, because they were certain it would have value for them later in life. Troubadour children could be memorizing huge numbers of useful songs and tunes instead of being taught to read them.
I’m not saying everyone should memorize everything, but examples abound that when you read music you are not really participating in it the same way you would if you played from memory or were improvising. Blind musicians have never done much sight-reading, though there actually is a braille form of music notation. Is the music of Ray Charles, Art Tatum, Doc Watson, Arthur Blake or Stevie Wonder somehow deficient? Hardly. Reading a sentence to someone is different than speaking directly to them, and performing music when reading is not the same as performing when not reading. A lot of processor power is being used up with the reading, and since the essence of musical sight-reading appears to be the ability to look ahead, this might prevent you from being perfectly “in the moment.” At my church, everyone is reading almost everything, and it could be called the Reading Church of Christ. The choir is always reading, the pastor is reading the sermon, we have readings from the Bible, and we all read our programs, the hymnbooks and the daily prayers, and the pastors even read the baptisms and the communion. The Children’s Moment is improvised, and is always among the liveliest parts of the service. Only the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology and the Threefold Amen song are always done from memory, and they are always vastly more spirited than everything else. At Christmas time we get to sing carols we all know, and the congregation comes alive, or now and then during the year when the service calls for “Ode to Joy” or a familiar hymn that everybody knows and isn’t trying to read. The best preachers and politicians don’t always read their sermons and speeches, though with teleprompters it’s hard to tell what is happening. Garrison Keillor enthralled us for decades with his epic monologues on the radio show Prairie Home Companion. They were conjured up in the moment and not read from a script, though they often lasted fifteen minutes or more. My friend Pat Donohue, the guitarist in the band on that show for many years, even stole for me a “crib sheet” of paper that Keillor used to map out one of his stories, with a few key words and phrases scribbled on it, but nothing resembling a fully-written story.

The Ongoing Farce of Guitar Instruction Books
When I got my first guitar around 1968, I had a copy of Alfred’s Basic Guitar Instructor, that somehow I was miraculously able to ignore after a frustrating evening or two of trying to sight-read “notes on the E string” and playing exercises. I had no idea that Alfred D’Auberge’s book was another well-marketed entry in a long line of similar books dating back centuries, that claim to show a logical, step-by-step, incremental approach to mastering the instrument so that the student could sit (correctly of course), looking at the staves of music, and faithfully execute what was written there, and thus be a musician. I credit my ability to steer around guitar pedagogy by the fact that it was 1968, and the radical idea was openly circulating that anybody could play lots of great songs just by strumming or fingerpicking chords and ignoring sheet music. It had been five years since the Beatles invaded America. The Folk Boom had already come and gone, Dylan had gone electric before I knew who he was. Playing guitar chords and making up and learning riffs while singing songs but knowing nothing about music or note-reading had become a mainstream concept in the 1960s, and people were doing it at parties I went to. What still isn’t mainstream is that what I did is a legitimate way to learn to play the guitar, and not unlike the path that millions of other players have followed, especially in the 20th century, once access to sound recordings was available to everyone. Just thirteen years after tossing Alfred aside I won the National Fingerpicking Guitar Competition, playing my own compositions “Elves and the Shoemaker” and “Dirty Dish Rag” on stage in a qualifying round with about fifty other guitarists from around the country, in front of three judges and a live audience. In the finals that evening I played Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and another original, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to win out over the other four finalists. No one ever told me to learn the way I did, and being hard-headed, and driven by an insatiable urge to fingerpick the guitar as much as twelve hours a day, I basically learned the way a blind person would have learned, by hearing, doing, copying and inventing. In the half century I have spent since I began my guitar journey I have been a traveling professional musician, mostly in the U.S. and I have come to realize that I am one of many, and that there is more than one way to learn to play the guitar. Now as I look at both the guitar instruction methods from centuries ago and YouTube videos, I see a familiar set of patterns, and a similar blind spot in public consciousness of what troubadour guitar playing is and how people commonly learn without following lessons and rigid tutorials. Nothing seems to stop the “notes on the E string” people from cranking out their instruction books, but nothing seems to make the students pay attention, and one by one they either give up or start playing those “vulgar” chords.

Who Reads or Should Read Music?
Sight-reading is only one type of musical skill, and should not be confused with musicality itself. Any music that is performed with sight-reading is tethered to a baseline complexity of what is possible and expected for musicians to be able to perform reliably. It is a triumph of organization that a group of musicians can work together as a team and produce nice-sounding music from paper arrangements, but it is not really the same animal as an intense solo performance done without paper. Arrangements in hymnals and the parts of the orchestral pieces are created to be “performable,” though of course some are more difficult than others. So are the songs used in school music classrooms by music teachers, and the accompaniment parts that pianists play behind classical singers or students who are auditioning for music academies. Musicians are not expected to be able to sight-read a difficult symphony, a Beethoven sonata or Chopin étude flawlessly, but no one can join a working orchestra without the ability to play written parts of a certain difficulty at sight. The musicians who are the best readers are often the most sought-after, to the point where reliable and competent reading becomes synonymous with musicianship itself. Orchestras or high-profile bands don’t want members to be improvising or “faking it.”

Conversely, a huge body of oral-tradition music revolves around another set of sounds, rhythms and skills that are not notated on paper or sight-read. Obviously at a gig where everyone is reading you stand out as being deficient if you don’t. But an orchestra member who is good at sight-reading could not use those skills to play a gig in a blues or country band– there is a different skill set involved for each situation. There are no scores to read at the country or the blues gigs. You couldn’t just look at sheet music for a Cajun fiddle tune and know how to play it in the Cajun style unless you were already familiar with what the style sounds like and how to do it. The violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz’s renditions of jazz and pop standards from his “It Ain’t Necessarily So” album or Itzhak Perlman’s “Turkey in the Straw” or “Bill Cheatham” (on YouTube titled “John Denver and Itzhak Perlman Play Bluegrass”) come to mind as examples where world-renowned masters of more complex and difficult styles were not able to play a purportedly simpler style better or more effectively than supposedly less-skilled or less-trained players. Nor could you program a sight-reading robot to play a waltz in the bluegrass style, or feed it a melody and expect the robot to be able to properly adorn it with appropriate and lovely Scottish fiddle trills and ornaments. Written notation and language on paper can capture words to songs and it can show sequences of notes, chords and harmony. But syncopations, hesitations, nuances, tones, accents, and other key expressive, dynamic and rhythmic elements of styles of music don’t map onto paper very well, and have always lived in an alternate musical universe that first became tangible when sound recording began. Now with the ubiquity of video, it is a signal that non-written music is spreading like never before, which might herald a rapid increase in the irrelevance of written music.
You will see music stands and sheet music at classical music events, sometimes at jazz events, and on TV when the late show band or an orchestra is playing. Musicians with music stands typically wear their black and white unwrinkled clothes as a common uniform of “proper music.” You will also usually see music stands in churches and school music events, where children above the ages of about ten are commonly taught that reading music and not memorizing or playing by ear is the correct thing to do. Large numbers of people who would like to play home-made music with their guitars are never told that reading notes might not need to have anything whatsoever to do with their musical education, and they likely never get a pep talk from anyone who explains that what they are doing is fine and that they don’t need to read music. If you go to a concert or music festival of rock, bluegrass, or blues, Cajun, celtic, old-time, funk, cowboy, punk, folk, Cajun, Hawaiian, metal, rockabilly, country, or most other kinds of exciting music, it is almost a certainty that never during the entire duration of the concert or festival will anyone read music on stage. You might see a music stand somewhere, but it will have set lists, words or charts of chords or diagrams of arrangements to be referred to, not notes to be read. Does this mean that this music is somehow “inferior” or “primitive?”

The number of people in the country who can sight-read guitar well enough to make a living doing it is statistically zero, unless you count guitar teachers who make money trying to teach people to read music. The number of guitarists sight-reading on commercials, jingles and recordings, or occasional pick-up gigs is probably considerably smaller than the number of professional players on the thirty teams in the National Basketball Association (currently 450, and a very elite group of people), and infinitesimal when compared to the number of people who play guitar. It’s my guess that those few professional guitar readers are also skilled at playing by ear, jamming and improvising, and use those skills on their gigs as much as the reading chops they have. Studio guitar legend Tommy Tedesco wrote colorfully about his experiences playing guitar on thousands of commercial recordings, jingles and hits, and how much he had to invent and improvise even as he sat looking at a written score. The number of well-known and successful troubadours who are playing concerts and making recordings who can or do sight-read guitar music as part of their artistic life is immeasurably small. Guitarists just don’t have or need that skill. The only place you will find any significant concentration of players who can sight-read guitar at all is in music schools where they are training the next generation of sight-readers, whose future job will be to train their successors. There aren’t a lot of careers left where your occupation is to learn a highly refined skill, and then not use it to do anything except teach others to do it, so they can become teachers, passing on the esoteric skills and perpetuating the cycle. Monks training monks to become monks so they can train more monks who will train monks...

Guitar Notation: Square Peg, Round Hole?
The guitar is the preferred instrument of modern troubadours, so its issues become troubadour issues. Guitarists and troubadours will have to remain philosophical and put up with the way things are, and in spite of the revolution in music learning that is happening on the internet as people learn from each other without paper, I see just as many diatribes as I saw decades ago about how important it is for guitarists to learn to read music so that they can become “better musicians.” Earlier we discussed the basic fourteen “vulgar” open guitar chords used by so many self-accompanied guitarists, but let’s look more carefully at guitar notation.

Western musical notation is fundamentally just a graph of pitch against time, where time is the horizontal x axis, and the notes on the staff are displayed vertically, forming the y axis. The notation system co-evolved with the piano keyboard, which is one-dimensional, so that reading piano music is cognitively a 90 degree rotation, where the fingers take the shape and patterns of the notes on the page. The reason so many pianists can read music is that the notation system was designed for the piano, and it apparently dovetails well enough with the human brain, eyes and hands. A two-dimensional piece of paper can show a reasonably good representation of one-dimensional keyboard graphed against time, but it would require some kind of three-dimensional notation to work equivalently for the guitar. The already two-dimensional fingerboard doesn’t map very well to the one-dimensional musical staff, any more than the round Earth maps to a flat piece of paper. It may be that computers or virtual reality will somehow allow us to do something better, but even if it were developed, it is extremely unlikely that it will come to fruition and be adopted into our present system of music education and performance in the foreseeable future.
The reason guitarists don’t read well may not necessarily be their fault– it may just be a consequence of the relationship between the notation and the instrument. The comparison of a pianist reading notes and a guitarist reading notes is somewhat analogous to the difference between a language made up of an alphabet and one that uses hieroglyphics or glyphs like Asian languages, or to doing math using Roman numerals. The guitar, piano and accordion and to a lesser extent mandolin, ukulele and banjo can play four or more notes at once, and those chording stringed instruments happen to be the same ones where players don’t typically sight-read well. The process of reading fingerings of chords on these instruments, or pieces of music that involve melodies, rhythms, harmony and chords being played together involve a different and more complex process than reading single-note melodies, which some guitarists learn to do reasonably well. When chords or complex choices of fingerings are involved, the ability to read fluently will drop dramatically. Clusters of notes on the staff visually resemble what a pianist does with their fingers, but not so with the guitar. Bowed strings can only play two notes simultaneously, so they share to some extent the two-dimensional nature of the guitar family fingerboards. Bowed instruments have a tremendous advantage in being tuned in equal intervals, as are the mandolin family, the bass and even the 4-string tenor banjo, though it has been commonly used in more than one tuning. The musical distance between adjacent strings on all of them is identical, but the standard tuning of the guitar (and also the banjo and the ukulele) is irregular, which introduces yet another and possibly the fatal extra element of complexity in the guitar sight-reading experience. There is a tiny subset of guitarists who endorse using a mathematically consistent “perfect fourths” tuning, where all strings are five frets apart, but this “P4” tuning (E A D G C F) is showing no signs of becoming a mainstream idea. Players like Stanley Jordan have taken it to high-profile places; reading, soloing and playing in different keys are vastly simpler and more logical than in standard EADGBE, but common chords don’t work well.

Since there is only one of each note on a piano, the strategies of fingering the notes are significantly more straightforward than on guitar. There are sometimes alternate fingerings for notes on wind instruments, but the fact that there is never more than one note at a time being played greatly reduces the complexity of reading. There are almost always multiple ways of executing a note or a group of notes on the guitar, and it often takes more than a glance at a page to sort out the various fingering choices. There is just one Middle C among the 88 keys on a full-size piano. Depending on how high up on the neck you consider it reasonable to play, 45 musical notes are playable on the guitar I’m holding now. There are actually five locations where I can play a middle C: the 20th fret of the 6th or bass E string, the 15th fret of the 5th string, the 10th fret of the 4th string, the 5th fret of the 3rd string, and the 1st fret of the 2nd string. Not only are they in very different locations, but they also have their own timbres, and if I wanted to add a significant vibrato to the note, I would want to choose either the C on the 3rd or the 4th strings. Only 8 or 9 of the entire range of 45 notes on the guitar appear at a single unique location, on the thickest or the thinnest strings, and about 11 of those 45 notes can be played at as many as four different places. (I give approximate numbers because it is not standardized how long the guitar fingerboard is. Some guitars give better access to very high fingerboard positions than others.) This means that roughly 80% of the notes playable on a guitar can be played at more than one location. So when you are reading most notes on the guitar, you need to make a decision about the location, especially if the music is more than just beginner exercises. The choice of which fingers and which strings to use to play a passage on guitar depends on context and on the complexity of the piece of music, and the notes that precede or follow it might cause a guitarist to finger something differently in order to have logical continuity and sensible fingering strategy. Matters of taste also enter, and some guitarists prefer to finger certain series of notes one way as opposed to another.

These caveats or considerations are not the same as when someone is reading music on any of the instruments in the orchestra or a marching band, other than a small percentage of situation in the string section. The musical distance between strings on a violin or cello is 7 half steps (frets), there are only 4 strings, and the bow can only play 2 at a time. Mathematically this means there are far fewer permutations and choices than on the guitar of how to finger particular notes or groups of notes that show up on more than one string, and unlike the guitar, the musical distance between strings is constant. Except for extremely high positions on the neck, no notes normally appear on more than 2 strings on a bowed string instrument. The guitar has more strings, they are musically closer together (4 or 5 half steps), and many players, especially troubadours playing alone, sound far more than just one or two strings at a time.

While we are listing the reasons why guitarists should not be bullied into thinking that they are inferior because they don’t sight-read, let’s also talk about tunings and capos. Since antiquity, guitarists and other stringed instrument players have used capos to shorten the neck and transpose the music, and literally hundreds of different tunings. Unfortunately, the whole process of learning to read notes only works in one tuning that everyone has to agree upon. Alternate tunings are of paramount importance to guitarists, but the concept means little to anyone in a marching band or orchestra. (Although the idea that the trumpet and tenor saxophone transpose to Bb and the alto sax to Eb is almost the same idea, though they never play any other way; when players think they are playing a C they actually sound a different note, which is almost like a guitarist always using a capo.) If you are interested in any of the other non-standard guitar tunings there is no way you can reasonably read the music other than to pretend you are in standard tuning when you are not. Alternate or “non-standard” tunings are now as popular as they have been in many centuries, and this is a significant issue, as are the use of partial capos that clamp only some of the strings to introduce yet another different set of fingerings and possibilities. A significant percentage of the exciting new music being played and created all over the world in the past forty years has been in what are called “non-standard,” “alternate” or “open” tunings, and similarly in the days before standard musical notation and standard tunings became the norm, lute players used dozens of different tunings. Alternate tunings have a long history, rooted in the fact that when you are trying to transcribe music onto the fingerboard that was created on another instrument, you often have better results if you use a particular tuning, since the notes may land in better strategic locations. Is it reasonable to ignore this entire gigantic body of music because it doesn’t fit into the world of sight-reading? The sight-readers says yes and the non-readers say no. To guitar sight-readers, the rich and glorious world of non-standard tunings might as well not exist, since it lies outside their access and violates their rules and training, though there is an Italian word and a long tradition of scordatura, or changing the tuning of a stringed instrument for a specific piece of music. Incidentally, guitar readers nearly universally allow one type of “cheating.” In classical guitar literature you’ll commonly find retunings of only the bass E string, most often to D, but sometimes to C or other notes. The music is notated as if it were not retuned, which means that if a piano player were to sight-read the same passage of music, all the notes played on the 6th string of the guitar would sound wrong.

Tablature and Notation
A different type of stringed-instrument notation dating back to antiquity, known as tablature or TAB, became common in several forms during the 15th century and remains in wide usage today, especially among amateur guitarists. Lute manuscripts from the Middle Ages were written only in either neume or tablature-style fretted-instrument notations similar to the older Arabic numerical systems. Instead of showing symbols indicating time value on a grid of lines that shows pitch, it shows a numeral corresponding to the position of the note on the fretboard on a staff that represents the strings of the instrument as you look at them. In the 19th century, some used a system where a “fraction” was written next to each note, with the two numbers indicating the fret number and the string. Tablature typically contains no indication of meter or time value, though special rhythmic symbols have been variously added by enterprising intabulators. TAB has the important advantage of working equally well no matter what tuning the instrument is in, unlike standard notation, where participants need to agree on the tuning of the instrument that determines where each note lands on the fingerboard. TAB is now commonly printed together with standard notation on parallel staves, so you can see the “shape” of the melody, harmony and time values of notes from the standard notation, with the guitar finger positions shown by the TAB. Today TAB is very popular, and it has flourished on the internet in e-mailable ascii computer keyboard character form. Troubadour notation seems to have returned to its Arabic roots, as a way to learn and to help us map the music onto the fingerboard, though I am not aware that there are music jobs where guitarists are hired to read TAB for performances. A great deal of guitar learning now is taking place where people are listening to recordings or videos, while using TAB to assist in learning the fingerings and sequences of notes. Though the TAB does not depict or capture in a standalone form what the music sounds like, it shows what fingers land in what places, and when combined with standard notation, audio or video its shortcomings become moot.

A little-known type of chord tablature shorthand notation called alfabeto appeared around 1600 in Italy, Sicily and Spain, popularized or possibly invented by a man named Girolamo Montesardo. It showed that at least some people were thinking in terms of guitar chords then, like people certainly always have done, though this notation only flourished briefly, mostly in the 17th century. We discussed earlier how guitar publications since the early 20th century have often used chord diagrams with black or white circles on a rectangular grid. Six vertical lines represent the strings as if you were looking right at the fingerboard, with a letter name like C, G7, or Am6 above the diagram to explain its musical function. The alfabeto system instead used something more like a map key in the margin, that showed the fingering of the chords used in the song with TAB numbers. A modern guitar G chord would show as 320003 and an A minor chord 002210. Confusingly, any four-chord song in alfabeto might have chords named A, B, C and D no matter what the musical nature of those chords was, and the letter names above the staff did not have musical meaning the way we use those letter names now. The alfabeto A chord was just the first one in the list, which was presumably also the first one in the song. The letters were placeholders to show which of the particular set of chords that were involved in that song you should be playing at any moment. A six-chord song would always have alfabeto symbols A through F above the staff, though other symbols other than letters were sometimes used for variants of the shorthand. Gary Boye asserts that these books were only intended to be, “the most basic instructions for amateurs approaching the instrument….,” with no explanation of how he knows that. This type of notation is functionally similar to both the Nashville chord number system and jazz charts that are in wide usage today among both studio and performing musicians, where a player is not given exact notes to play, but a framework of chord changes. Musicians are expected to be able to create rhythmic or arpeggiated right-hand parts, or what the alfabeto scholars call “ornamental strums.” Boye also pointed out that the alfabeto notation was compatible with movable-type printing press technology, which explains its popularity and the historical lack of the rectangular-box-with-dots chord diagrams we are now used to seeing.

There are quite a number of surviving alfabeto books, that coincidentally seem to have died out in the early 18th century, at the same time that both the piano, the modern 6-string guitar and the reading of standard musical notation became established. The first piano was made in Padua, Italy in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, and modern “standard tuning” EADGBE replaced the 5-string baroque guitar not much later. Along with its associated skill of sight-reading of music on the staff, the keyboard established firm control of music education, theory and composition that it has still not relinquished. These converging timelines seem to corroborate my theory that the guitar family of instruments began to be viewed disparagingly from this point on unless they were used for their version of sight-reading. Written guitar music began to be shifted in pitch (transposed) by an octave to allow it to fit reasonably on just the G or treble clef, the upper half of the so-called grand staff, which corresponds to the right hand of a piano player, and what is used for the violin. The mid-18th century stands out as being the turning or tipping point where the 6-string standard-tuned guitar, piano, staff and notation systems all variously locked into place and reached their modern forms. The so-called “great composers” consolidated their reign of terror over the peasants who were strumming their chords and singing their “vulgar” rhyming songs.

The Arrival of Audio
I recently attended a local singing contest, where about 20 young people between the ages of 13 and 27 were competing for prize money and recording studio time in front of a sizable audience. I was expecting to be cringing much of the night, as I often do in talent contests, but it was a great show, and the audience and even the judges were amazed at how good all the kids were. As far as I could tell, none of them had sheet music in front of them, and as I thought about it, I realized that possibly none of those kids could read music, and that they had learned not only how to sing, but how to hold a microphone, be commanding, and even to move on stage by watching large numbers of other great singers most of their lives on TV and on YouTube. There are better ways to learn music now than ever before, and people are making good use of them, whether or not their music teachers approve. It is not a coincidence that immediately after the appearance of recordings and radio broadcasts about 90 years ago, people in huge numbers began learning music from broadcasts and by listening to recordings, not from reading. Styles of music that featured exotic tones or rhythmic syncopations, accents and grooves were suddenly passed on in a way that sheet music had never been able to transmit. Rhythms and tones were exactly the kinds of things that lent themselves far better to sound recordings than paper, and this new situation ignited a massive and very important proliferation of what we now recognize as the huge realm of non-classical American “roots” music. It also helped propel jazz onto center stage, though many of its practitioners included composers, horn and piano players who continued to use written music notation and not just play by ear.

If you lived in a rural area in the days before recording, you could only learn quite a number of musical skills if there were teachers nearby, or if they visited frequently. Recordings and radio changed that instantly and forever, though as we will discuss, it was at least 25 years before rural black music was played on the radio anywhere, and at least another 25 or 30 years until it was heard outside of very localized regions. That music was only able to travel by being inside the musicians, in a broadcast signal, or in the grooves of records. Old recordings are particularly valuable to study, and I talk about them a great deal. There are millions of them, and they offer a datable and clear window into at least part of the musical knowledge of the past and present, and remain the only evidence we have of this music that didn’t live on paper anywhere. In addition to motivating record companies to record rural music to make money, and helping musicians learn from each other, recordings especially simplified the problem of learning from someone of a different race in the segregated American South. It would never have been easy for a black musician to circulate in a white community, or for a white person to go where the blacks lived and played music, though it may have been less problematic for children than adults. If you could get hold of a record made by of someone of another race, the sounds coming from the phonograph machine weren’t as intimidating or taboo as dealing directly with either the musicians or their culture. The age of recording and radio likely did more than we will ever know to mingle and disseminate the musical contributions of musicians of all colors and classes.
Fortunately for us here in the second decade of the 21st century, it has never been easier for any of us to listen to the once-rare recordings. It is somewhat paradoxical, and a cause for some head-scratching, that this media that allowed orally-transmitted music to spread and flourish was precisely what many folklorists a century ago blamed for interfering with the time-honored folk traditions that they had only recently come to realize were flourishing in the rural South. Recording and broadcasting technologies are what led pioneering folklorist John Lomax in 1933 to try to collect African-American songs in Southern prisons, because the inmates were beyond the reach of radio and record players and Lomax assumed their music would be more “pure” and “authentic.” The folklorists’ dreams of locating “untainted” rural, ancestral or ethnic music seemed ruined when people got radios and record players, though doubtless only folklorists were sad about it. Musicians embraced recording quickly, just as they were some of the first groups to use cars, cell phones, laptops, laser printers and the internet effectively. It also was probably the case that when rural musicians began to learn from the new media, that process merged with the “genuine” oral learning many had already been doing. (Many academics have come to call this new learning “aural” to distinguish it from “oral.”)

Both oral and aural learning are somewhat opaque to people who only play music from a printed page or don’t play at all, though there is really nothing mysterious about either of them if they are what you do. I have done both types all my life, essentially every time I learn a song. Learning from your friends or parents is not fundamentally different from learning a song from a record, especially once you know how the guitar is tuned and what the basic chords are. Learning from recordings is often easier, because you can repeat things until you get them. It’s hard for some 21st century people to grasp the importance of recordings in the learning of music, partly because video is so ubiquitous now and because there hasn’t been much recorded music in their lifetime that was just a snapshot of someone playing a song. In 1928 it was obviously a revolutionary and helpful thing, since at that time every recording was made by putting a microphone in front of something that was actually happening. After about 1970, the overwhelming majority of recordings have been multi-tracked and overdubbed to the extent that it is almost unheard of for anyone to make a commercial recording by just putting a microphone or even multiple microphones in front of musicians who are playing music simultaneously. Now it has even reached the point that most popular songs could not possibly be played by any group of musicians playing any instruments, since they are collages of sounds assembled in a computer program, and did not originate as human performances.

Internet video is quickly replacing audio as the primary pathway of oral learning, making it useful to compare our present era with what happened 90 years ago, the last time there was a comparable paradigm shift in musical learning. There must be another set of parallels with the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century. Many musicians in the past became important to history and to the spread of musical styles, songs and ideas primarily because of their positions in the media landscape, not just because of their talent, charisma, ambition or marketing abilities. The Carter Family are a superb example– their significant sales of records, far more than their personal appearances, impacted their legacy in American country music. But likely the single largest factor in how much influence they had on other musicians may have come from their three-year presence, beginning in 1938, on Dr. John Brinkley’s Mexican border radio station XERA, the most powerful radio signal in the history of the U.S. They could be heard loud and clear every night, from the Yukon and Nova Scotia to the Caribbean, performing live on the Consolidated Chemical Hour, which was recorded on aluminum discs and re-broadcast the following morning. An interesting sidebar to this story is that Maybelle Carter’s very unusual home-made and ultimately very influential guitar style was not correctly copied by listeners, and now there is barely a single player anywhere who plays the way she did. Now that some video has surfaced of her playing, you can see her very odd right-hand technique. Other early adopters of radio similarly benefited immensely as a result. There are many congruities between the early pioneers of radio and recording and 21st century “viral” musicians on the internet.

About Tone, Dynamics and Style
It is difficult to argue that rhythm, tone and dynamics are not important or absolutely essential elements of music, and that the only thing that matters is sounding the correct pitches at the correct time. “Musicality” and “expression” enter in as the wild card ingredients that “better” musicians in music schools can hopefully add while they read the notes. Phrasing, dynamics, tone and intricate rhythms associated with various styles of music have proliferated immeasurably since the arrival of recorded and broadcast music. The spread of blues, jazz and the development of rock & roll could not have occurred in the sight-reading, do-it-like-Martin-Luther-did-it music model, and without the new technologies, the music might have stayed in New Orleans, New York, Chicago or Memphis.
If you still are clinging to the idea that music notation really captures the sound of the music, look up the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s father) and listen to his vocal preaching style on YouTube. Then try to imagine how you could notate Reverend Franklin’s style on a printed page, so that another preacher might deliver the same words in that style without ever hearing him. Rev. Franklin’s speech can be viewed as a form of music, just as Roy Buchanan’s or Django Reinhardt’s guitar styles are similarly something you have to hear and could not possibly sight-read if you hadn’t heard them before. No guitar professor trained in sight-reading is going to pick up a transcription of a Merle Travis piece and play it unless they already have studied that style. It’s almost comical to imagine monks in the 1400s trying to write music manuscripts for the solos of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet work, Professor Longhair’s New Orleans boogie piano grooves, Tom Waits’ or Leon Redbone’s voices, or growling Boots Randolph “yakety” saxophone solos. How could you possibly notate the timing, tone and dynamics so that someone who had never seen or heard it done could reproduce it from a printed page? I have a book of piano arrangements of Jimi Hendrix songs, that is almost funny in its cluelessness, and I wish you could hear my smartphone software attempt to sight-read “Purple Haze” from the book.

As an interesting example of how recordings quickly began to influence musical learning, ragtime music appeared about the same time that recordings did, being the first widespread addition of syncopation to the stiff meters of the printed page. Ragtime was likely a post-slavery consequence of African-Americans applying African polyrhythms and syncopations to European music forms, and it may well have been able to spread because of recording technology. Who knows how many musicians had been doing those sorts of rhythmic variations in localized areas? Robert Cantwell thinks that ragtime piano got its trademark syncopated swing when pianists began copying African-American stringed instrument styles, especially banjo. It is not well-known that Scott Joplin played banjo before he took up piano, and historians have even zeroed in on the influence of a banjo player named Plunk Henry that Joplin met at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. People may have only been able to learn the “feel” of ragtime because they had heard it done and got the gist of what was called the “intoxicating” syncopation orally, and not just from the page. This era marked the beginning of adding rhythmic complexity to popular American music, and coincided almost exactly with the arrival of cylinder recordings, and with the mechanical “player piano.” Joplin did not record any cylinders, but made some paper piano rolls. Even though ragtime’s rhythmic complexity was simpler than the rumba, samba, calypso, James Brown’s funk or the reggae beats that were to come in the 20th century, it obviously hit a nerve in a public that was already saturated with piano music, and started popular music culture adopting rhythmic elements in ways it had never been able to do before.

Learning Music “Troubadour Style”
It is difficult to yield to the supposed superiority of the ways of the organized music education world when they don’t formally acknowledge what we troubadours do as art or being worthy of “serious” study. People have been playing instruments and singing at the same time since the beginnings of the human race, yet until quite recently not even a progressive school like Berklee College of Music considered the singer-songwriter to be part of a curriculum. They still don’t allow you to major in “roots music” there, though there is a degree program in songwriting, which the students clearly understand is their best hope of making serious money from music. It is anyone’s guess as to when music colleges will truly welcome troubadours, or whether that will happen because they need the tuition money, not because of mission statements, lofty ideals of the board of directors, or deep respect for the art involved. Place your bets on when they will release them from the guilt of not reading music, the pressure to play guitar “properly,” or formally admit that reading guitar music is not a skill they need. The guitar programs at all the hallowed schools of music are still heavily focused on ossified forms of instrumental nylon-string guitar, and I cannot find any evidence that they are welcoming either steel-string players or singer-songwriters, or even guitarists who play with a pick and not their fingernails. I don’t have up-to-date numbers, but a few years ago American nylon-string guitar sales were about 1/16 that of steel-string guitars, which have for almost a century been quite dominant in their presence in popular music culture. (And I suspect that a sizable chunk of that 1/16 came from schools purchasing inexpensive nylon-string guitars.) Though rock and jazz electric guitar programs have become common in music schools, steel-string acoustic guitar has not made inroads, and remains an outcast along with the troubadour skill set, as folk art forms rather than “academic” ones.

Ruth Crawford-Seeger and those Folksong Transcriptions
Before we move on, let’s shine our troubadour flashlight on a little-known story that illustrates some of the surprisingly complex issues involved in capturing and notating oral-tradition (sometimes called “folk” or “vernacular”) music to bring it into the printed music world, and about the relationship between the two forms of music. A new type of character enters our bigger movie, revealing how written music has continued to dominate, overshadow, and even alter the information pathways of American peasant music. Folksong collectors had been using portable recording machines for over 40 years before John Lomax established the importance of archiving the recordings of their sources, and not just transcribing the words or tunes and tossing them. What Benjamin Filene called, “a network of scholars and folksong enthusiasts” launched a feel-good, far-reaching project to try to share some Lomax-collected “folk music” with the American people, presumably those who weren’t already playing their own. Dozens of those songs were permanently put into my head when I was a child, and I am still trying to understand how and why that happened. This effort had far-reaching consequences, helped to ignite the Folk Boom, gave large numbers of people an artificial musical heritage, while perpetuating a basically fictional but persistent concept of “folk music.” This somewhat obscure but interesting scenario involves the role of folksinger Pete Seeger’s stepmother Ruth Crawford-Seeger (1901-1953), who was enlisted to transcribe hundreds of folksong field recordings into written notation.

A child prodigy pianist, Harvard-trained and highly-celebrated Ruth Crawford became an extremely respected modernist musician and composer, who in her heyday circulated at the highest levels of music. Though she did most of her creating between 1923 and 1933, she is still commonly tagged as the most important American female composer of the 20th century, and some of her works are performed to this day by important ensembles. The first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for musical composition, she became very interested in American folk music following her marriage to Charles Seeger, also a composer and a product of Harvard University’s music department. Both Seeger and Crawford admitted to barely knowing anything of even the existence of American folk music before the mid-1930s, other than being aware there were British Isles ballad remnants being found in the rural South. Crawford had done some transcribing work with Carl Sandburg on his “American Songbag” folk song book in 1926 that seems to have kindled her life-long interest in folk music. After she married Seeger in 1932, they both plunged headfirst into the folk music world, working closely as a team and with Robert Gordon, John and Alan Lomax, Sidney Robertson Cowell, the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song and other folk music organizations and advocates. While not composing and raising four children, who included notable folk musicians Mike and Peggy Seeger and her increasingly influential stepson Pete, Ruth accepted a job transcribing over three hundred folk music field recordings (for a dollar a song) into piano arrangements, for publication in folksong books to be sold to the public and put into schools and libraries.

The Lomaxes (and others) exerted tremendous effort to collect thousands of these now-famous field recordings, but once they were placed on a shelf in a library the feeling arose that more should be done with them. 190 of those songs, including Annie Brewer’s March 1937 recording from Montgomery, Alabama of “Hush Li’l Baby,” appeared in the 1941 John and Alan Lomax folksong book “Our Singing Country.” Another comparable batch of transcriptions were published in “Folk Song U.S.A.” in 1947. Annie Brewer’s song, one of twelve she recorded for Lomax, went on to become known by countless millions of people as the “traditional” lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” after it was published and released on a series of folk recordings, beginning with The Weavers in 1951. Crawford-Seeger’s piano arrangements became firmament among the folk songs taught in public schools, especially those from her highly-regarded 1948 book “American Folk Songs for Children.” Her work seemed to have triggered a “movement” to use these collected American folk songs with school children, who liked them more and learned them faster than what they had been using in music education. This music felt so much more alive and appropriate than the European songs that had been standard fare for elementary school music, and Crawford-Seeger excitedly tested out songs in Silver Spring, Maryland at the nursery school where her children Mike and Peggy were enrolled. (This took place two miles from where I grew up, though before I was born.)

Though she intended her arrangements to be “simple enough to be sight-read by the average amateur,” those transcriptions remain as the only available physical form of that music, and as a unique but fundamentally unchallenged body of work bridging American oral tradition music and European-style pedagogy. Her immense credibility as a classical music “insider” lent some strange kind of authority or legitimacy to the efforts of the folksong advocates, who apparently felt they needed the support and respect of the music critics and big-city arts insiders to accomplish their goal of proclaiming the value of American folk songs. Crawford’s reputation no doubt boosted the image of the whole project in the minds of those observers, and her name appears on the 1941 book cover as “Music Editor.” Yet arguably an alien setting was created for the humblest and most raw of the “people’s music.” The corresponding field recordings that she transcribed have been and still are nearly totally unavailable for public listening, and critiques or analyses of strengths and weaknesses in her transcriptions remain entirely within academic henhouses guarded by academic foxes. It is very hard to know how to evaluate her work, which ultimately seems to have become at once important, ignored and unquestioned. In her preface, she described a kind of song called a blues holler, “whose fluid tonal and rhythmic subtleties could on no stretch of the imagination be put into notation suitable for sight-reading,” indicating that she knew that written notation was not capable of capturing all folk music accurately. Yet she went ahead and did just that, in spite of the fact that the sound recordings existed as both an archival form and as educational tools on their own.

There was an imperative in the mid-20th century to get these “folk songs” onto paper, and the wisdom or value of putting a projected image of those songs into stark black and white notes on staves of notation for piano is never brought up. Nor is the issue of whether they might have legally been creations of their so-called “sources.” Music teachers reading folksong transcriptions put them into my brain as we sang them in elementary school music classes, and professional folksingers learned and spread certain versions of them widely. Questions arise about the validity and relevance of music learned via these transcriptions, or of why it was important for team Lomax-Seeger to even make them. Why didn’t they just find folk musicians who played piano and record them? If the non-piano music was so good, why bother arranging it for piano? Why not hire music teachers who play guitar and banjo, a question some of us have been fruitlessly asking? Crawford-Seeger was one of the architects of what was certainly a well-meaning conspiracy, but a conspiracy nonetheless, to teach Americans in their homes and children in their school music classes what ultimately were artificial and bowdlerized arrangements of songs that were taken from unwitting American individuals. Appropriated and re-packaged as “folk songs,” they were said to belong to all of us, but they were carefully copyrighted, controlled and monetized by the collectors and their publishers.

Crawford-Seeger became a unique and enduring but hidden link in what was a significant and sustained effort to take oral-tradition music out of the mouths and hands of rural musicians, put it into notation on paper, take ownership of it, and embed it into music teaching. Sight-readers and children everywhere could then learn genetically-modified versions of folk songs without having any idea what the songs originally sounded like. Even more oddly, 28-year-old Alan Lomax didn’t like the complexity of what Crawford-Seeger did with many of the songs in their first collaboration, so for the second batch he forced her to transcribe not the original field recordings, but his own versions of the songs, which he had learned by listening to the recordings. (Any musician who has heard Lomax’s recordings might be immediately alarmed at the idea of his musical performances being a standard for anything important. Somehow his name now shows up as the artist on many field recordings he made, so it’s a little tricky to find the songs he actually sang, like “Rich Old Lady” or “Black Betty” from the 1958 “Texas Folk Songs” album. It’s also hard to find out that John Cole played the harmonica or that Guy Carawan played the nice guitar and banjo on that album, and that Lomax merely sang, though he did know how to play some guitar.)

All the decisions about meter, timing, and subtleties of the music were made by Crawford-Seeger alone, or with the assistance of her husband and Bess Lomax Hawes, Alan Lomax’s sister. Crawford-Seeger wrote comments like, “Do not ‘sing with expression’ or make an effort to dramatize,” and “Do not hesitate to keep time with your foot,” though she fought and failed to have printed in its entirety in that book a somewhat legendary eighty-page monograph on her approach and feelings about folk music. Titled “The Music of American Folk Songs,” it remained out of print for 64 years until 2003, though her hundreds of transcriptions and piano arrangements live on. Most of what was included in the 1941 book were her suggestions on reading the music. These comments were telling: “The guitar or banjo is to be preferred. The harmonica, fiddle, dulcimer, auto-harp and accordion are appropriate. The piano, if it must be used, should not obtrude; it can easily submerge the voice in conventions foreign to the spirit of the songs.” So if the piano should perhaps not even be used, and wasn’t played on the original recordings, what was the point of working so hard to make admittedly inadequate piano notation for the songs, other than merely reasserting the dominance of the piano and of written notation in music education?
Crawford-Seeger occupied a peculiarly paradoxical position, where her seeming respect and admiration for oral-tradition music lay opposed to her dedication to creating written transcriptions of its songs so that they could be enjoyed by the legions of amateur sight-reading piano players who might buy books derived from those source recordings. These books, along with those made by other advocates of American folk songs, were made of arrangements of what were seen as “folk songs,” which could be argued were technically the creative property of whomever the “sources” were when the folklorists recorded their music. The built-in contradictions and personal appropriations of source materials are reminiscent of the situation of 19th century ballad collector Francis Child. He devoted most of his academic career to collecting and comparing orally-transmitted remnants of old ballads that predated the printing press and that were learned without books, so that he could put them in a book with his name on it that would be sent to a printing press, to hopefully bring him acclaim and book royalties.

Here I am hot under the collar about folklorists again. This has been standard operating procedure in folklore, where the considerable effort of putting “folk songs” onto paper and into compilation books created a new monetization and dispersion of modified forms of the art that has almost exclusively benefited the compilers and editors rather than the creators or performers of that music. Folk music producer and arranger Milt Okun expressed the viewpoint of the literate music world: “composers like Dvorak had mined their own folk traditions and opened up everyone’s eyes to the riches and beauty… it is everyone’s music– our music.” Legally, it wasn’t everyone’s music, but it has taken a long time for that realization to sink in, and many a folksong source has been mined and exploited as if it were timber or minerals on public land. There is widespread public awareness of the exploitation of musicians by record companies in music business monetizations, but the comparable situation built around printed transcriptions and arrangements of the so-called “folk songs” is far less understood and little-discussed. Technically, it is probably true that what looks like outright theft to us now was actually immoral rather than illegal, since most of it happened before the Copyright Act of 1976 assigned ownership of copyright to creators at the moment of creation, and not at the time of filing registration paperwork with the copyright office. Had Annie Brewer, Rebecca Tarwater (1908-2001) or Emma Hays Dusenbury (1862-1941) filed copyrights for the ballads they sang into the folklorists’ recording machines, and if they or their heirs had remembered to renew those copyrights within 28 years, they might have had legal grounds to sue for infringement, though before 1976 a written transcription of music was required to file for a copyright. Dusenbury, who was blind, dirt-poor and 72 years old when she was recorded, was semi-literate and didn’t even have a social security number, and would have had no reasonable chance of preparing the paperwork to protect the intellectual property of her versions of the 116 songs she sang into the folklorists’ microphones. No doubt they seemed utterly valueless to her and probably everyone else in 1936, as she sat in her flour-sack dress on the porch of the leaky shack she shared with her 46-year-old spinster daughter Ory in the remote Ouachita hill country near Mena, Arkansas, a handful of miles from the Oklahoma border. With this image of Mrs. Dusenbury in our heads, singing for the nice, educated people from Washington who were so interested in the old songs she knew, let’s jump backwards in our time machine a thousand years or so and examine the troubadour landscape in North Africa and Southern Europe.

Read Chapter 5

Read Chapter 7

I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... I want people to find this in web searches and to read it.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,